(CNN) — Sri Lanka’s political and economic crisis escalated as protesters stormed the prime minister’s office on Wednesday, demanding the country’s leaders step down after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled to the Maldives without resigning.
Rajapaksa had been expected to formally resign Wednesday but instead left the crisis-hit nation and appointed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as its acting leader, citing a section of the constitution that allows a prime minister to “discharge the powers, duties and functions of the office of president” when the president is ill or “absent” from Sri Lanka.
Wickremesinghe was also due to formally resign “to make way for an all-party government.”
The move further enraged protesters, who want both leaders to vacate their roles as the country’s 22 million people struggle to buy basic goods, fuel and medicine.
Hundreds of demonstrators breached the compound of the prime minister’s office in Sri Lanka’s largest city Colombo on Wednesday and entered the premises, according to footage from the scene and local witnesses.
The grounds have now been taken over by protesters who are gathering in celebration, following a standoff with armed police at the gates of the property.
People could be seen on the balcony of the property, lighting firecrackers and waving the Sri Lankan flag, according to witnesses.
Demonstrators outside demanded that neither the President nor the Prime Minister “be spared.”
This follows months of escalating anger over the economic crisis, with Rajapaksa accused of high-level corruption and mismanagement that ultimately bankrupted the country.
As demonstrators took to the streets, acting President Wickremesinghe appointed a committee of senior armed forces commanders headed by the Chief of Defense Staff Lt. Gen. Shavendra Silva to “restore law and order” in the nation, a high-ranking military official told CNN Wednesday.
Wickremesinghe declared a state of emergency across Sri Lanka and a curfew on Wednesday only to later cancel both orders, according to the prime minister’s office.
In Colombo, a handful of protesters also entered the premises of state broadcaster Sri Lanka Rupavahini on Wednesday, negotiating a “deal” with broadcast staff to not give airtime to politicians such as Wickremesinghe.
At the prime minister’s office, demonstrators waving the Sri Lankan flag thronged the building and celebrated on the balcony of the property after a standoff with the police, according to eyewitnesses and footage from the scene.
The president flees
Rajapaksa was forced to announce his resignation after after more than 100,000 people massed outside his residence over the weekend.
His planned resignation would leave him without presidential immunity — potentially exposing him to a raft of legal charges and reduced security.
After being blocked from departing the country at least twice on Monday, Rajapaksa and his wife managed to flee to Malé, in the Maldives on Wednesday, according to a high-ranking security official.
They flew on an AN32 troop transport plane from the Sri Lanka Air Force shortly before he was due to step down.
Maldivian air traffic control refused the plane’s request to land until an intervention by the Speaker of the Maldivian Parliament and former President Mohamed Nasheed, according to the official. A spokesperson for Nasheed did not confirm or deny the intervention.
Sri Lanka’s Air Force on Wednesday confirmed Rajapaksa’s departure, saying in a statement: “Pursuant to the request of the government and in accordance with the powers vested in a President in the Constitution of Sri Lanka, the Sri Lanka air force provided a plane early today to fly the President, his wife and two security officials to the Maldives.”
Rajapaksa was previously blocked from departing Bandaranaike International Airport, on Monday after refusing to join a public immigration queue, a high-ranking military source told CNN.
Aides for Rajapaksa arrived at the airport in Colombo on Monday with 15 passports belonging to the President and members of his family — including First Lady Ioma Rajapaksa — who had booked seats on a Sri Lankan Airlines flight leaving for Dubai at 6:25 p.m. local time, according to the military source.
But immigration officers declined to process the passports given to them by presidential aides, as Rajapaksa and his family were not physically present for cross checks. Eventually, the flight departed without the President and his family on board, the source added.
Another attempt was made to get the family on an Etihad flight scheduled to leave Colombo for Abu Dhabi at 9:20 p.m. local, according to the source, however the same problem occurred, as the Rajapaksas refused to join the public immigration queue for the flight.
In both instances, the Rajapaksa family was in a nearby airport lounge, waiting for confirmation they could board without queuing among members of the public, the source said.
On Tuesday, a video released by a former police officer claimed that Rajapaksa was staying in a private house belonging to a top air force commander. The Sri Lanka Air Force has denied the claim, describing it as propaganda intended to tarnish the image of the corps and its chief.
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